E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
There was never a literal description of what the title star looked like in Melissa Mathison’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial screenplay, the final character being a fully-fledged collaboration between director and special effects technician. The pre-visualisation process took in the familiar — concept drawings by storyboard artist Ed Verreaux, ten inch tall prototypes sculpted in clay — and the not so familiar (Spielberg cutting and pasting a picture of the chin and nose of a five-day old baby onto the eyes and forehead of an Albert Einstein image to create a mixture of the innocent and the wizened). Yet Rambaldi’s input into the design process was crucial. The technician had a Himalayan cat whose eyes fed into the creature’s peepers. And most tellingly Rambaldi’s 1952 painting Donne del Delta (Women Of The Delta) portrayed one of its female characters with an elongated face and neck that proved influential on the character’s trademark telescopic neck. Donald Duck was also a key influence — on the character’s tush.
Once Spielberg gave him the get-go, Rambaldi manufactured three E.T. torsos (plus accessories), hovering up $1.5 million of the film’s $10 million budget. 1. A lightweight electro-mechanical version that was bolted to the soundstage floor, capable of thirty points of movement in the face, then thirty more in the body. 2. A more sophisticated auto electronic body that was brought out for close-ups that had eighty-six separate points of movements. 3 a cable-less suit capable custom designed for E.T.’s walking scenes. Rambaldi also fashioned four separate heads, one mechanical, one radio controlled (for the walking scenes) and two electronic. The hero head was the electronic one, capable of 35 different facial tics at the forehead, lips, eyes, eyebrows and tongue (getting E.T. to taste the potato salad was a bitch apparently — the two operators often mistiming so the poor alien would bite his own tongue).
It took twelve crew members to operate E.T. on set and the director noted it was an “average of three takes per human and 15 takes per E.T.”. “E.T. was treated just like a real actor,” Rambaldi recalled. “Eating and speaking were the most difficult actions had to perform. For example, it was hard to get him to mouth “E.T. phone home.” The mouth is the maximum portion of mobility in the body, because there are so many muscles concentrated in that area. Operating E.T, in those places was very tough.”
Still, compared to Bruce the shark, E.T. worked a dream. He was even capable of pulling off practical jokes like a cable-controlled Jeremy Beadle. At different times throughout the shoot, surprised crew members would catch him smoking a cigar, picking his nose, winking at hot women and waddling around a corner wearing a gauze mask to protect him from the foggy sets. He also pinched screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s derriere. Jokey japes aside, E.T. remains Rambaldi’s crowning achievement: a special effect at the centre of the movie that you never once think of as a special effect. As Spielberg himself put it: “Carlo was the biggest hero of the film.”